Catholic School Teacher Fired After Starbucks Mask Dispute to Be Reinstated: Arbitrator


Angela Sena, a Toronto Catholic school teacher who was fired from her job after a mask dispute and altercation outside a Starbucks store during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been reinstated to her position.

A grievance was brought by Ms. Sena’s union and, in a decision released on Aug. 2, arbitrator Bram Herlich ruled that the teacher’s termination was to be rescinded and replaced with a one-month suspension. He ordered that Ms. Sena be compensated for any monetary losses related to being fired, and to be reinstated to her job without loss of seniority or benefits.

The incident that led to the board firing the teacher occurred on April 1, 2021. Ms. Sena was at a Starbucks store in the morning before she was scheduled to teach a virtual class, which she intended to conduct from her mother’s house. She was waiting for her coffee and not wearing a mask, having advised the Starbucks employees that she had a medical exemption.

The arbitrator noted that there was “no real dispute” that the mask rule did not apply to the teacher, as the Ontario regulations permitted exemptions for medical conditions. Ms. Sena obtained a note from her doctor at a later date confirming her mask exemption.

Words Exchanged

According to the arbitrator, Ms. Sena raised some issue with the Starbucks store after being told she had to wait outside because she had no mask. She admitted she became frustrated with the store, noting other Starbucks had not made that request, and expressed her displeasure.

A customer in Starbucks, 20-year-old Sephra Perruzza, “initiated a verbal exchange which quickly escalated in tone and volume” with Ms. Sena, according to Mr. Herlich. The store employees asked the school teacher to wait outside, which she did. The arbitrator noted words were exchanged between both women, although there were discrepancies in the events in question.

“It portrayed the grievor as an ‘anti-masker’ who demanded to be served without her mask. It then claimed that when another patron ‘stood up for the [Starbucks] employees … the anti-masker assaulted her by pulling her hair and slamming her into concrete.’ The [Tik Tok video] went on to identify [Ms. Sena] by name, posting a photo and contact information, including Instagram contact info.”

The school board then responded by suspending the teacher with pay, pending an investigation, and eventually terminated her. Media reports at the time quoted a school board trustee as saying, “We take anti-maskers very seriously,” noted Mr. Herlich.

Viral Clip

He said the Tik Tok video “garnered significant online notoriety, generating further social and conventional media coverage, including reports on TV news and in a local newspaper, and that there was “little doubt” that Ms. Sena “was also a victim” because of the viral video.

It was the video that disclosed she was a teacher, causing the board to fire her. A witness, who started an online fundraiser for Ms. Sena’s legal fees, alleged the Starbucks employee who videotaped the encounter and Ms. Perruzza were friends, but it was not clear if the arbitrator heard from that witness.

“We have all become far too familiar with the ‘culture war’ that has been the unfortunate offspring of the pandemic,” said Mr. Herlich. The interaction between the two women made them “some of the original combatants in this culture war,” he suggested.

Mr. Herlich described Ms. Peruzza as feeling “entitled to initiate the interaction” with Ms. Sena, and to “advise that she felt uncomfortable” because Ms. Sena wasn’t wearing a mask.

Mr. Herlich said witnesses testified the 20-year-old made comments to Ms. Sena including: “‘If you don’t get out of my face, this isn’t going to end well’ or, even more dramatic, ‘if you don’t get out of my face I am going to [expletive]you up,’” noted Mr. Herlich.

Ms. Sena can be heard on video responding to Ms. Peruzza saying, “You said you wanted to [expletive]me up outside. I really want to talk about [expletive]me up.”

“At that point, the Starbucks employees can be seen and heard intervening, threatening to call the police,” said the arbitrator. He said Ms. Sena can be heard on video saying, “I’m leaving. She wants to [expletive]me up. I want to know what that means like does that mean like the front, the back?”

For her part, Ms. Peruzza testified “emphatically” that the teacher said, “Let’s take it outside.” The arbitrator didn’t accept her testimony, stating, “This is not consistent with what we see and hear in the video.”

His ruling said that the altercation between both women was a two-way street.


Both women eventually were outside Starbucks. Ms. Sena “was holding her coffee, hardly an attack position,” said Mr. Herlich. Both women gave evidence that indicated the first physical contact occurred when Ms. Perruzza slapped Ms. Sena’s coffee out of her hand.

She responded by hauling the 20-year-old to the ground, said the arbitrator, pulling her down by her open jacket and/or pushing her shoulders. Others intervened and the two women were separated. Ms. Sena called the police.

Mr. Herlich said he could not conclude there was a single aggressor, and in any event, “the physical confrontation was fleeting.” There were no injuries. No criminal charges were laid.

During the hearing, the Toronto Catholic District School Board fought to have additional video evidence excluded, after the union came into possession of a 20-second long, continuous shot recorded from inside the Starbucks which included some audio.

While the board, in firing the teacher, concluded she was the aggressor, the arbitrator said the evidence, especially from the second video, was not as clear cut. He ruled that the school board chose to prefer the evidence of Ms. Perruzza and the inflammatory TikTok video, painting Ms. Sena as the aggressor who “assaulted an innocent Starbucks patron.”

The school board also raised questions about Ms. Sena’s mask exemption, treating it, noted the arbitrator, as “an issue of credibility not one of enforcement of Covid rules.” The board tried to argue Ms. Sena did not have a mask exemption. The arbitrator noted that Ms. Sena was not required to provide proof according to the law.

He also ruled that while the teacher exercised poor judgement in getting into the altercation, which she readily acknowledged and expressed regret over, the board’s decision to fire her, a teacher with an “unblemished 13-year record,” was “excessive.”

While the teacher was expected to uphold a standard of conduct, and should not have been involved in an altercation “with someone not much older than the students she was responsible for teaching,” ruled Mr. Herlich, she was not teaching at the time, and could not have anticipated a TikTok video impacting the reputation of her employer.

She never identified herself as a teacher, Mr. Herlich added, concluding, “I am satisfied that discharge was too harsh a penalty.” He noted that the school board made no attempts at progressive discipline and ruled it imposed a penalty “out of proportion with the offense.”